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Does Physics Today Point to Mind Rather Than Matter Only?

A cosmopsychist looks at the universe, God, and free will

In a recent podcast, “Does the Moon Exist if No One is Looking at It?”, Michael Egnor continued his discussion with philosopher and computer programmer Bernardo Kastrup. As a scientist, Kastrup has worked for The European Organization for Nuclear Research and for Phillips Research Laboratories, and has authored many academic papers and books.

This week’s topic is the way physics today points to mind as opposed to materialism. Kastrup offers some thoughts on God and free will as well, from his cosmopsychist (or objective idealist) position:

From the transcript: (Other discussions in the series, Show Notes, Resources, and a link to the complete transcript follow.)

Michael Egnor: You have said and written that physics points to the mind. What do you mean?

Bernardo Kastrup: I’m alluding to quantum mechanics, which is a tricky thing to allude to because it’s so generally misunderstood and abused. But I dare to believe that I am not misunderstanding what has been going on over the past several decades in experiments around quantum entanglement, which basically refute the notion of physical realism. These experiments refute the notion that there is an objective physical world out there, even when it’s not being observed, with defined objects occupying defined positions in space-time.

Michael Egnor (pictured): I would certainly agree that a deep look at quantum mechanics really leads one to believe that idealism is overall a much more satisfactory description of nature than is materialism. But I’m curious, does that mean that if no one is looking at the moon that it’s not there?

Bernardo Kastrup: Well, there certainly is something out there that is independent of all of us as individual minds, and which seems to hold the state of the world when nobody is looking at the world. Because when I park my car in my garage at the end of the day, and I come home and I fall asleep, and the next day I go down, hey, I find my car right there where I left it the last time I looked. So there is clearly, something out there that is holding a state independently of all of us.

The question is, is this something out there physical, in the sense that we attribute to the word? In other words, is this something out there constituted of defined objects, with defined positions in space-time which are outside, and independent of consciousness itself? That I would say is not the case, but I do think that there are transpersonal mental states that are not under the control of my volition or your volition, which do not depend on my looking at it or your looking at it.

As a cosmopsychist, Kastrup sees nature as held in being by a cosmic mind. He describes his position as objective idealism, which he distinguishes from subjective idealism:

Bernardo Kastrup (pictured): There is subjective idealism, idealism that goes back to Bishop Berkeley, and the idea there is that the world exists only so far as my perception of the world. And there is objective idealism, which says that no, the world exists outside of our perceptions of the world, but this world is itself mental, or exists in a transpersonal form of consciousness. So it is objective from our perspective, but it is still mental.

Note: George Berkeley (1685–1753), Bishop of Cloyne, was an Irish philosopher best known for rejecting the idea that mind-independent things—things that do not depend on being thought of or perceived—exist. In his view, famously, “to be is to be perceived (or to perceive)” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Bernardo Kastrup: Now, my view of idealism is mostly related to objective idealism. I do think there is a world out there independent of us, so that’s objective idealism. But at the same time, I also think that what we call the physical world depends on our observation. That’s what physics is suggesting. Physicality only arises once there is a conscious being looking at this transpersonal mental state.

That interaction is what leads to physicality. And from that perspective, I am a subjective idealist as well, with respect to the physical world, and an objective idealist with respect to these transpersonal mental states that are out there, but are not physical.

Kastrup sees many modern science thinkers as clinging to an outmoded materialism that forces them to draw unwarranted conclusions from the puzzling evidence:

Bernardo Kastrup: Let’s look at physics. The dichotomy we have now, given the experimental results from quantum mechanics is either you grant that the physical world is only there if it’s being observed, or if you wanted to safeguard the intuitions behind materialism, you have to say that there is an infinitude of parallel but real physical universes arising every centisecond every time somebody or something just looks up. This is ridiculous.

Note:The claim that there is an infinity of universes arises from the materialist’s need to account for fine-tuning in this universe that looks as if it is the product of a mind. If there was an infinity of universes, the appearance of design in our universe would just be a fluke, like rolling 1000 heads in a row. Eric Holloway explores this claim in “Here is a way we can be sure if we are living in a multiverse.” His thought experiment involves a coin flipper and a disintegration gun.

Michael Egnor: I would certainly agree that Everett’s many-worlds hypothesis, were it to be proposed in a psychiatrist’s office would warrant a diagnosis of psychosis. It’s crazy. And it might make the mathematics work, but goodness gracious, it’s madness. And why anybody would adhere to that perspective to defend materialism rather than just admit that mind plays a fundamental role in the metaphysics of reality is very hard to understand.

Note: “The fundamental idea of the MWI, going back to Everett 1957, is that there are myriads of worlds in the Universe in addition to the world we are aware of. In particular, every time a quantum experiment with different possible outcomes is performed, all outcomes are obtained, each in a different world, even if we are only aware of the world with the outcome we have seen. In fact, quantum experiments take place everywhere and very often, not just in physics laboratories: even the irregular blinking of an old fluorescent bulb is a quantum experiment.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Then the topic turned abruptly to God.

Michael Egnor: Do you believe in God?

Bernardo Kastrup: That’s a big question.

Michael Egnor: That’s the big question, huh? What role, if any, does God or the concept of God play in your metaphysical perspective?

Bernardo Kastrup: Let me put it this way. If a very close friend or a family member asks me, do you believe in God, I will instantly say yes. In public, it’s more difficult because I don’t know exactly what people mean when they use the word. Do I believe in a bearded man up there in the sky that knows everything and is subjecting us to basically torture in order to see whether we comply with His directives? No, that’s not my view of God. Do I believe in a omniscient ground for all existence, the image of which, or at least a partial image of which is the universe we contemplate when we look up to the stars? Yes. Yes, I think that’s very reasonable hypothesis, a very reasonable thing to postulate given logic and the empirical evidence that’s available to us today.

I do not know whether this omniscient consciousness is self-reflective. I don’t know whether it’s deliberate. I’m inclined to think that it’s not, which doesn’t exclude intelligence. You can have very, very high levels of intelligence without metacognitive introspection, without self-reflection. So I tend to think that this omniscient mind underlying all nature is not self-reflective because it seems to behave in very regular ways, which are characteristic of instinct, intelligent instinct that it may be. After all, the universal constants seem to be very highly fine-tuned. That suggests something very intelligent instinct, but not deliberate, not self-reflective.

Michael Egnor: It would seem in a way then that the mind that you’re describing is obviously a mind of enormous power and intelligence, et cetera, except that if it’s not self-reflective, then that would be a pretty radical limitation on the mind. That it could know everything except itself.

Bernardo Kastrup: That gives us a very serious hint for the possible meaning of life, because we are self-reflective. We have evolved this capability struggling in this environment of ours, in this planetary ecosystem. So I think that’s a very, very interesting hint to what might be going on here. What is the attempt? Why is this happening? Where are we going with it? Who set us up for this, and for what end? I think that there is a hint to it right there.

Inevitably, the topic of free will arose:

Michael Egnor:Do you believe that free will exists?

Bernardo Kastrup: Yes, but I would have to qualify this. Because I think, unless you have thought through this question carefully, one’s notion of free will is malformed. It’s not coherent. Let me try to clarify this to you. We tend to think of free will as something that is neither random nor determined. If it is determined, then it’s not free. But if it’s random, is it free will? Because it’s just random. It doesn’t mean anything. It could be anything.

I think what we actually mean by free will is when choices and actions are determined, but they are determined by that which we identify ourselves with… Now the question is, at the cosmic level, at the universal level, is there free will? I would say surely, because if all reality is grounded on this conscious intelligence, this omniscient intelligence at the ground of nature, what it must do is what it wants to do because there is nothing outside of it to force it to do otherwise. In other words, it is free. It has free will because it does what it wants. But at the same time, what it wants is what it must want because of what it intrinsically is.

As Schopenhauer said, the essence of what he said was that we can choose certain actions, but we cannot choose what we want to choose. The want is determined, it’s a function of what you are. So yes, I believe in free will, but at the same time I believe in a form of determinism that I think means the exact same thing as free will. They are not only compatible, they are the same thing, just looked at from two different perspectives.

Note: Michael Egnor has written a number of articles on free will, for example, “How Benjamin Libet’s free will research is misrepresented: Sometimes, says Michael Egnor, misrepresentation may be deliberate because Libet’s work doesn’t support a materialist perspective”


Here are some other discussions between neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and philosopher and computer geek Bernardo Kastrup:

Bernardo Kastrup argues for a Universal Mind as a reasonable idea. The challenge, he says, is not why there is consciousness but why there are so many separate instances of consciousnesses. He tells Michael Egnor why his view, cosmopsychism, makes more sense than panpsychism.

and

Why consciousness couldn’t just evolve from the mud. Kastrup, a panpsychist, is sympathetic to the basic intuitions behind the idea that there is design in nature (intelligent design theory). Philosopher and computer scientist Bernardo Kastrup discusses the problems with such claims with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor.


Here are some other discussions between neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and philosopher and computer geek Bernardo Kastrup:

Bernardo Kastrup argues for a Universal Mind as a reasonable idea. The challenge, he says, is not why there is consciousness but why there are so many separate instances of consciousnesses. He tells Michael Egnor why his view, cosmopsychism, makes more sense than panpsychism.

and

Why consciousness couldn’t just evolve from the mud. Kastrup, a panpsychist, is sympathetic to the basic intuitions behind the idea that there is design in nature (intelligent design theory). Philosopher and computer scientist Bernardo Kastrup discusses the problems with such claims with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor.

Show Notes

  • 00:28 | Introducing Dr. Bernardo Kastrup
  • 01:22 | How quantum mechanics points to the mind
  • 02:40 | Does the moon exist if no one is looking at it?
  • 03:41 | Transpersonal mental states
  • 05:02 | Subjective idealism
  • 05:16 | Objective idealism
  • 05:36 | Bernardo Kastrup’s view of idealism
  • 06:23 | The longevity of materialism
  • 10:49 | Belief in God and metaphysical perspectives
  • 13:48 | Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways
  • 14:34 | Free will
  • 17:02 | Moral accountability

Additional Resources

Podcast Transcript for Download


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Does Physics Today Point to Mind Rather Than Matter Only?